I tell my students not to bury the lede, so here it is:
Randy Stoecker, professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin Madison, will present “Hip Hop, Campus-Community Collaboration and the Old White Guy Professor” on Wednesday, October 18, 7:30 – 9:00 p.m., at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, USA. If you’re in the area, you can register for this free event here.
Stoecker is the author of Liberating Service Learning and the Rest of Higher Education Civic Engagement (2016, Temple University Press). He argues in this book that the dominant paradigm of service learning in higher education — which nominally emphasizes experiential learning a la John Dewey — in reality prioritizes institutions. It is operationalized as the number of hours students spend in a community setting, which is treated as an object to be acted upon in the service of university-defined student needs. This practice introduces a logical inconsistency in regards to civic engagement, which he explains with an example of a sociology course in which students are supposed to learn about poverty and social inequality by volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter:
[The student’s] experience is actually the indirect experience of someone else’s experience. That is, the student does something for someone else who is actually experiencing poverty. The student does not directly experience poverty—they only experience what it is like to be a volunteer doing things for someone experiencing poverty. Thus, the best-fit learning goal is not an understanding of poverty, but an understanding of poverty service provision (p. 35).
Course projects based upon an institutionalized service learning pedagogy thus can reinforce students’ perceptions that marginalized communities are helpless, part of the “white-savior industrial complex.”* Neither students nor the communities they interact with acquire an increased capacity to attack through political means the causes of problems from which communities suffer.
Stoecker argues that student-community partnerships should empower communities to produce positive social change. In this perspective, the proper role of students, faculty, and higher education writ large is to support communities in these efforts, with curriculum-based student learning outcomes being of only secondary importance. It’s an interesting perspective, one that I think it has a lot of merit given given my own experience with community partnerships intended to produce civic engagement.**
*Teju Cole, “The White Savior Industrial Complex,” The Atlantic, 21 March 2012.
**Chad Raymond, “Community Partnerships for Civic Engagement: A Problem in Search of a Solution?” Journal of Political Science Education 13(3): 247-255 (2017).